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How real were the Ramones?

Were the late Johnny and co really as dumb and brutish as they appeared?

Andrew Calcutt

Topics Culture

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‘Beat on the brat / Beat on the brat / Beat on the brat with a baseball bat.’

This lobotomised lyric, taken from the eponymous debut album by the Ramones (1976), whose guitarist Johnny Ramone (nee Cummings) has died of prostate cancer, prompts the key question about New York’s finest punks: were they kidding or was it for real?

In the Queen’s Jubilee year the Ramones were welcomed by young British musos as fellow inmates in the cage of irony. The ripped jeans, leather jackets and moptop haircuts were taken as a tongue-in-cheek reprise of sixties Beat groups, while two-minute ditties held together by Johnny Ramone’s relentless buzzsaw guitar were read as a witty, anonymous riposte to inflated rock soloists with egos to match.

But did we write the Ramones in our own self-conscious image, regardless of who Johnny and co really were? If it was just an act, how could anyone have kept it up so convincingly for more than 20 years, without giving a glimpse of something intelligent underneath. Perhaps the men in the mask of irony were not wearing a mask at all, but simply metallic – as dumb and brutish as their outward appearance suggested.

There is an equally valid case for both readings. On the one hand, the Ramones’ home ground was CBGB’s, the lower East Side dive bar which was also home to acknowledged art-punks such as Television, Talking Heads and Blondie. Their hybrid of The Wild One, the Beatles, the Monkees (the manufactured American substitute for the Beatles), and the Archies (the cartoon group drawn together when the Monkees refused to go on playing the parts assigned to them), all of them sieved through Last Exit to Brooklyn and Andy Warhol’s Factory films, was too complex to have evolved naturally.

Likewise their bubblegum chord changes coupled with heavy rock (minus the solos) – bubblegum spat out on to the pavement – was surely the product of calculated artifice; while a band so doltish that a garage attendant once complimented their manager for taking ‘care of those retarded people’, can only have been doing it deliberately.

On the other hand, Johnny Ramone really did watch two horror/action films a day. He was born into a staunch Republican family and seemed to follow the family tradition unthinkingly, looking forward to Ronald Reagan’s ascendancy in the 1980s and responding to the election of the Ramones into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame (2002) with the words ‘God bless President Bush. God Bless America’. But maybe this too was a put-on, designed to irk left-liberal media-types.

The success of the Ramones is that, to paraphrase Chuck Berry, you never could tell; and with three out of the lumpen four now dead (Joey Ramone, cancer, 2001; Dee Dee Ramone, drug overdose, 2002; while original drummer Tommy quit in 1978), we’ll never know how much or how little removed they were from their public personae.

On the other hand, the failure of irony, if such it was, is that nowadays it has no salience. Set against pompous poses and unrealistic aspirations, unrealistically low expectations have a kind of critical, though corrosive, edge; but in a kingdom of intellectual pygmies like today, the deliberately small-minded man, even in groups of four with fuzzbox attached, is indistinguishable from the rest.

Andrew Calcutt went from Progressive to Punk in the mid-1970s. He is the author of Brit Cult: An A-Z of British Pop Culture, Prion Books, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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